Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Matrix in MANPOWER:

No, Not That Matrix

I blogged earlier about the idea of a matrix: a configuration of elements that's repeated across a movie until the pieces fall into the 'right' configuration--at which point the movie can end.


  • A C A C
  • B D B D
  • B A D C
  • D C A B
  • A B C D

This is a more nuanced idea than a formula, whether it comes from myth or genre, because the idea of a matrix implies a permutation of elements across an entire film, and this permutation is part of the writer's art--not something pre-given.

Thus the matrix may pre-exist a movie (and often does), but it's the manipulation of the matrix, the re-scrambling of its elements in a sequence to lead to a conclusion that is the key to the writer's craft, and not the simple use of pre-given elements, which we are all stuck with as long as we want someone to understand us.

A Matrix in Manpower (1941)

The 1941 Raoul Walsh-directed Warners melodrama Manpower is a nice test case. Even though 1941 was by no means "post-classical"--meaning: they were hardly 'done with genres'--the big studios cranked out so many films that they often needed to mix-and-match elements, innovate, yet also create a satisfying product. Manpower is one such product.

Manpower focuses on tough powerline workers--their daring doing's and misadventures with dames. It's a kind of adventure film that's got elements of crime and romance. The movie has more a complex matrix, but the most obvious part is very common: the nuclear family or heterosexual couple.

Edward G. Robinson is hot-headed and lead-footed: he fights, he can't dance, and the ladies don't go for him. But he's got a heart of gold. (I told you originality wasn't necessary to organize a film around a matrix.)

Rather than the gangster he usually plays, George Raft plays Robinsin's tough friend. He's a moral compass to Robinson, who always played characters who were a little bit 'off.' Raft balances out Robinson, and it's clear they could go along in the same way for a long time. They're a bit stuck.

Soon enough the pair stumbles across Marlene Dietrich--and that "changes everything," as we now say. Dietrich plays a b-girl: she gets men to pay for her over-priced and watered-down drinks at a dive joint where sometimes the men also lose their wallets (a 'clip joint,' as it was then called).

Dietrich's also the daughter of Robinson and Raft's dour German colleague. When Dietrich gets out of prison, Raft is there, and it's clear he doesn't think highly of her.

It turns out Raft's disdain and machismo turn Dietrich on: they don't just fight, they spark. (They were perverse at Warners in the 40's). But movies being what they are, it's Robinson, not Raft, who falls for and thereby redeems Dietrich.

Dietrich doesn't love Robinson, and she's honest about this. So the whole machinery of the plot is basically trying to get Dietrich away from Robinson and into the arms of Raft. The story pattern is: a mistake corrected. Dietrich makes the wrong match, and the movie must set that right, because of course movie characters can't stay in the 'wrong' marriage for longer than 80 minutes.

In terms of the joke I told earier, in Manpower, George Raft is the private, and Marlene Dietrich is the piece of paper. The 'right' situation is her in his arms, and at that point he can shout "That's it," and the movie can end. (It's so clear, that they don't even use any dialogue at the movie's end: the couple just walk together in a long shot with music covering their dialogue.)

The Matrix, Elaborated

The movie is a bit more complex, because the couple has another element--the woman's father or father-figure--and because male camaraderie is so important in the film. The powerline workers are fun-loving tough guys: they risk their necks and often wind up hurt or dead. They 'work hard and play hard.' (The use of a matrix to structure of story does not exclude the use of cliches: indeed, the way a matrix organizes other elements can also just be the unpacking of a cliche.)

Robinson, in fact, is injured early in the film in a work accident, and this is clearly supposed to be a sign, along with his temper, of a character flaw. Even though Dietrich is damaged goods, she apparently deserves better than a character the movie repeated calls a "gimp."

When Dietrich's father dies, this moves Robinson to marry her. This is framed more like him replacing the dead father, rather than becoming a romantic partner.

Thus the two additional elements of the "right couple" matrix are: men proving their worth through meeting dangerous challenges, and a father giving his daughter to a husband.

Not Exactly New

None of these matrices are new.

  • 'And they lived happily ever after'? Not new.
  • Men proving their worth through daring do must go back to medieval chivalry, if not cave men bringing home the bacon.
  • Framing women as objects transferred between men--well, it's written right into the marriage ceremony, so how old is that?

Thus all of Manpower is basically a series of men proving their worth through daring do--electrical wire disasters and brawls--such that a woman can be given to the right man by a father of some sort. The whole movie is a series of the same elements searching for their final configuration.

The father's death transfers Dietrich to Robinson, but it's clearly not the 'right' configuration: there's no romantic love, and it's a father-substitute rather than a lover. (There seems to be no sex in the marriage: more than once we see Robinson waking up from a drunk, and Dietrich wide awake--and frustrated. Did I mention what dirty minds they had at Warners in the 40's?)

What must clearly happen is: the best friends must fight a battle such that the woman can be transferred from the father-husband to a husband-lover--from Robinson to Raft. And that's what happens.

So the movie is a series of male contests such that Robinson can become the father-figure who hands off and blesses the union of the more appropriate husband to form the new family unit.

The older man-younger man succession is also old: it's the Fisher King trope so much has been made of: an old father is symbolically powerful but literally impotent and so must be replaced with a younger and more fertile 'newer model.'


So if the ending of your script is not in fact some kind of re-arrangement of things which came earlier, you better think twice.

As to what makes some configurations more 'right' than others, it's hard to say.

If Manpower is exemplary, the matrix can be familiar, can even have a long history. All that matters is that one configuration seems more right than the others.

And when you find that 'more right' configuration, you and the audience can shout "That's it!"

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Ending, the Punchline, and the Matrix:

No, Not That Matrix

A Joke

There's an old army joke my parents used to tell me.

A private wanders around the base picking up scraps of paper.

Each time he picks up a scrap of paper, he examines it, says "That's not it," and throws it back down.

  • He picks up a bit of old newspaer. "That's not it."
  • He picks up a Hershey's wrapper. "That's not it."
  • He picks up a mislaid love letter. "That's not it."

People notice this odd behavior, send the private to the company shrink, and the private is determined to be unfit for active duty.

They give the private his discharge, and when he gets the piece of paper, he looks at it and shouts "That's it!"

This is a good pattern to bear in mind when thinking about movie endings.

Endings: Content vs. Form

Lots of ink has been spilled about how to end a movie. Mixed endings are often better than happy endings, as happy endings smack of wish-fulfillment. A good ending is often like that line from the old Rolling Stones song:

You can't always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, you might find
You get what you need.

But such advice concerns the content of the ending, rather than the form. And from the perspective of craft, it is often better to worry about the 'how' rather than the 'what.'

One way of describing the form of the ending is: a good ending arranges all the earlier pieces in the 'right' order. A movie's elements in their final configuration can be describe as a "matrix."

A Movie's Matrix

The word "matrix" has many meanings. A matrix can be an origin, original, template, founding pattern, frame, or factor providing binding unity. Combining these with the specifically mathematical sense, we can think of a matrix as specific elements in a specific configuration.

A matrix is a kind of formula. But the important thing about the formula is not how it comes from somewhere else--old stories, another movie, a genre--but rather how the matrix structures the work itself as a series of configurations terminating in the 'best' configuration. The matrix is the key that provides internal structure. The matrix may be borrowed, but the way it's implemented gives the movie structure and cohesion, and it's the implementation that's a key part of the writer's craft.

So in the joke about the private, the matrix is the soldier holding the 'right' piece of paper.

Everything else relates clearly and strongly to this matrix--and so builds up to it, by way of contrast. The matrix is the 'right' configuration, and the movement of the work--the joke or story or novel or movie--is a kind of permutation or perambulation through the wrong configurations of the same elements until finally the 'right' one is reached.

Indeed, this punch line packs two punches: the moment the soldier finds what he needs is also the moment we find why the soldier acts as he does. The matrix of the joke is also the matrix of the soldier's life.

The Punchline and the Matrix

In a joke the punchline is usually the matrix. But a movie is longer, and the matrix may never be articulated as a line in the script--though it sometimes is.

In The Shop Around the Corner the matrix does become a punchline.

Jimmy Stewart works and fights with Margaret Sullavan, but the two are secretly pen pals--and in love. When Stewart is going to meet his epistolary girlfriend for the first time, a friend who knows the Sullavan character comes along and takes a peek when Jimmy Stewart is too frightened to get his 'first look' at his beloved pen pal.

Stewart: Can you see her?
friend: Yes.
Stewart: Is she pretty?
friend: Very pretty...She has a little of the coloring of [the Sullavan character].
Stewart: This is a fine time to talk about [her].
friend: If you don't like [the Sullavan character], you won't like this girl.

Indeed, when I saw a screening of the reworked version You've Got Mail, they re-used this line, this was the only line in the whole movie that got a laugh!

'If you don't like X, you won't like y' (where x=y) is the matrix of The Shop Around the Corner.

  • Stewart both likes and doesn't like his coworker.
  • He hates the woman he sees, loves the woman he can't see.
  • Stewart can't recognize the one in the other, doesn't know that the one is also the other.

So this punchline embodies the whole idea of the movie: it present the matrix the whole movie is acting out.


The matrix is more important now than it was in Hollywood's first 50 years.

Film and literary genres have their own patterns. And Hollywood's classical period--roughly the 40 years from silent features until 1948--had no trouble recycling the same genre stories again and again.

But as independent and art cinema emerged as a competition to and an inflence on the mainstream, this kind of matrix became more important. Lacking a story formula, a filmmaker must create her own.

The movie's form then becomes not a repetition of a pre-existing pattern but rather the arranging and re-arranging of elements in the search for a satisfactory configuration. We know the movie has ended when the elements scramble themselves "where they ought to be."

Hence the matrix is important for writers for two reasons.

First, movies that never quite 'gel' may have an unsatisfactory ending, or they may fail to use a matrix pattern to impose order on the work.

More importantly, you may use a pre-existing pattern: every genre film does that. But a pre-existing pattern can easily become a tired formula. And while some even advise using a specific screenplay formula--the hero's journey, which is just another version of Moses, Jesus, Superman, and the Russian folk tale--the ability to create your own original work and to make your story cohere in a satisfying way is a far more valuable skill than the ability to repeat an existing formula.

In short: use a formula, but use it as a matrix, not a template.

About which more another time.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Comedy Sketch in Four Beats

If you're daunted by the task of writing a whole feature script, it's appealing to try something shorter. It builds up your confidence, and you get practice at all the basics.

The sketch is a good place to start doing dramatic writing--screenwriting, playwriting, whatever.

  • The sketch is a free-standing dramatic form.
  • A sketch is a complete scene, usually comic, between three and ten minutes long.
  • A sketch is a self-contained unit: it doesn't imply a next scene. So there's no longer story to worry about.
  • The sketch goes back to forms of theater like vaudeville and burlesque, but it's a form that still exists in late night comedy shows--like Saturday Night Live.

Like most dramatic writing, sketches are built out of actions. But a sketch also requires: a change in situation.

  • A change in situation might be: a boy is chased by a giant. Run run run. If the boy kills the giant, the situation is changed. The boy no longer has to run.

Writing sketches is good practice.

  • A sketch is almost like a tiny little movie. It's a freestanding story with a situation, actions and a change in the situation.
  • A sketch has a beginning, middle and end--so it helps you think about story issues.
  • But a sketch is also like a single scene from a movie. So writing sketches is also practice for writing scenes.

In short, writing sketches gives you all kinds of practice.

For the purposes of building one, a sketch consists of four 'moments' or 'beats.'

  1. Within a clear initial situation,
  2. a character finds a bizarre solution or adaption to one of life's little problems: an action.
  3. This action is repeated several times (if at first you don't suceed, try, try again), resulting or terminating in
  4. a change in the situation.

Each 'beat' may be more than one action. (I'm just numbering them here for convenience.)

'Beat' #3 is the bulk of the sketch.

Let's parse an example.

  1. Initial situation. Parents suffer from aimless teenagers at risk for drug use.
  2. Bizarre solution. So the parents hire a motivational speaker to inspire the teens--but he is a scary intrusive boor.
  3. Repeated actions. He yells at the kids. He insults them. He wrestles with one of them. Finally, his actions break the furniture.
  4. Terminating change in situation. Ironically, this works--the kids are motivated, and the family is unified--in trying to prevent the speaker from invading their house.

After you parse a few of your favorite examples, it's not much work to generate premises to develop into your own sketches. Here are three I often give my screenwriting students.

  • When a church organist calls in sick, an unusual replacement is found.
  • A young woman's boyfriend is not satisfying her in bed.
  • A family finds they must take a very cheap vacation.
  • A movie director tries to get an honest, realistic peformance from his star.

Have at it.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Schweddy Balls, Ulysses and Dramatic Writing

One of the nice things about dramatic writing is: the same basic tools are used to make very simple and very complex artifacts. Or, put differently, craft and taste are very different.

Take a simple situation.

A man whose family name is Schweddy makes seasonal treats, including popcorn balls, cheese balls, rum etc. So, yes, this man sells Schweddy Balls.

Everyone likely knows the Saturday Night Live comedy sketch based on this not-very-complicated dirty joke. The sketch elaborates the joke through constrast and repetition.

  • Contrast. Mr. Schweddy is interviewed by two very buttoned-down female hosts in those recognizably subdued tones characteristic of public radio--a medium very far removed from vulgar puns.

  • Repetition. The female hosts need to discuss the Schweddy Balls in detail: their appealing size, the way they glisten, how good it feels to have them in your mouth, etc.

Clearly, there is nothing too complicated going on here. A single pun structures most of the sketch. But the very simplicity allows us to unpack this structure in ways that show something larger about dramatic writing.

The two larger ideas could be called: summary and subtext.

Namely, a well-constructed bit of drama can be divided such that:

  • one part stands in a special organizing relation to the whole, and
  • the whole scene is split horizontally, so to say, between something on the surface and something hidden or unspoken.

The part that organizes the whole is the summary. In the case of this sketch, it's the punchline of the sketch--this is the line that seems to get the most reaction from the audience. This is the moment when Mr. Schweddy says "No one can resist my Schweddy Balls."

The punch line (because it's a comedy sketch) summarizes the whole scene. Everything else in the scene is essentially laid out there to illustrate, embody, act out, and point to the summary.

  • Sometimes the summary is a line spoken in the scene. When Hardy says to Laurel "this is another fine mess you've gotten us into," that summarizes what the rest of the scene acts out, bit by bit: Laurel getting he and his buddy into a mess.

  • Not every scene requires that the summary be spoken aloud. But if the audience doesn't get the summary, couldn't articulate it for themselves, there's a rather serious problem--or it's a different art form than what I'm discussing here.

  • A summary for James Joyce's Ulysses, hefty as it is, might be: "Bloom is a modern-day Ulysses." It's not complicated, but it's true. The summary is a kind of matrix: it connects something and something else, one semantic unit and another, be they a Jewish guy in Dublin and an ancient literary hero, or holiday treats and perspiration-soaked testicles.

The other key division is between what we see and what it points to--which in anything worth paying attention to, must be somewhat different than what's on the surface.

  • If the surface points to nothing other than itself, you're again talking about a different art from: something literal and based on boredom, rather than symbolic and based on curiosity.

So in the Schweddy Balls sketch, as in almost every bit of drama, there is a surface string of: actions, behavior, conversation. And this surface is held together by a logic we understand from everyday life.

  • There is action and reaction, question and answer, a topic and its exploration--all sorts of verbal continuity we recognize from life.

  • Were the scene more physical, we would have to recognize the logic of physical actions: beginning and ending actions, exerting effort, becoming tired, preparing to do something, etc. There is no exhaustive list of these things, and that's why writing about dramatic structures is so tricky and usually fails when it tries to be exhaustive.

This sketch is immaculately constructed.

  • Every sentence points in two directions: on the one hand towards eating holiday snacks, and in the other direction towards two women licking a man's testicles.
  • The set-up of the radio show underlines this. The sketch's imaginary radio audience hears only the verbal layer and thus is deprived from the behavior we can see: the women eating holiday treats.

The fact of one sign pointing in two directions has many names.

  • Ambiguity is one way a single sign can point to more than one meaning.
  • A pun is a single string of sounds that can be interpreted as more than one word or sentence.
  • Subtext is when characters say one thing and actually mean another.
  • Dramatic irony is when the characters think one thing is happening, but we know another is happening: as when Oedipus marries his mother but doesn't know it.

Many aesthetic terms point to the same general phenomena: something that's also something else. Indeed, art in general could be subsumed under such an idea: daubs of paint that looks like grapes, shabby actors that are also kings and queens, to name only two.

Thus in a simple, elegant, funny and coarse comedy sketch, we can see something powerful about how dramatic writing works.

  • There must be a surface series of actions, whether physical or verbal.
  • The surface actions must be held together by an autonomous coherent logic: we must feel 'this is how people talk,' or 'this is what people do when putting on a radio show,' or whatnot.
  • The surface actions should point towards something else. The characters have secrets, or something hidden is going on, or they're clueless, or we know what's happening and they don't. It doesn't matter what it is, so long as the surface actions have some other meaning an audience can get interested in.
  • On some level, the actions, behaviors and conversations must hang together. They must add up to something. Either the characters need to be able to summarize what's happening--"We're lost!"--or the audience will be lost for real, not as a fictional story.
    • Likely the writer wrote the summary first, and then invented the behaviors to embody it, and if the writer did a crappy job, the actions are not separately interesting in the logic of their unfolding: they do nothing but flesh out the summary.

This is delicate work: many things can go wrong.

  • If the surface actions do not hold together by some recognizable logic, that's a problem, because the audience can't follow along.
  • If the surface actions point to nothing besides themselves, you're trapped in literalism, and it simply is not that interesting. The audience can't remain interested for every long--unless the people are very good-looking or doing something inherently interesting, like performing risky stunts or having sex. (Pornography is almost entirely of subtext: it relieves us from the burden of meaning in a way that's pretty delightful.)
  • If no summary is possible or given, or the wrong summary is given, the result is likely too confusing to be pleasurable. (I assume here that some balance of understanding and confusion is pleasurable.)

All of these then make reasonable criteria for us to use on our own writing or on others'.

  • Is there a logic holding the actions and dialogue together? Can it be recognized?
  • Can the scene be summarized? Can we unify the actions under a clear idea?
  • Is the scene simply the summary boringly written? That is: is there not enough of a gap between the actions and their summary to justify our paying attention?
  • Is there subtext or dramatic irony? Is there more than meets the eye?

Finally, there's the question of how the summary of the surface actions and the subtext line up. This is complex and more a question of art than craft. Likely some will find Schweddy Balls/sweaty balls uninteresting, just as some will find Leopold Bloom/Odysseus uninteresting.

But that is a matter of taste, not craft.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Formulae, Interestingness & Being a Human Being

Aspiring commercial writers often look for a formula. Boy Meets Girl, Redemption, etc.

When I teach beginners, I use a different method: induction.

Write some stories. Write them as step-outlines: so only consisting of sentences describing actions, since only things that can be acted out can be used in a movie script--which is the target from. Get some friends to write similar stories.

Now look at them. Which are more interesting? Speculate why. Develop your own theory, your own equipment for detecting why some stories are more interesting than others.

Some advice-givers in the dramatic writing arena emphasize conflict. But not all good stories have explicit surface conflict. My own very complex technical term is interestingness.
Now if you look at drama and at other areas of life, interestingness is not hard to explain.
  • Situations which cannot be controlled or foreseen are more interesting.
  • Situations involving danger or risk are more interesting.
  • The combination of uncontrolled and dangerous situations is especially compelling.
  • Two patterns can be combined to be interesting: one beat on top of another in music, two characters with different habits interacting.
  • One thing transposed to another dimension: dolls that act like people, animals becoming human, etc.
In short: anything people pay to see at a circus or stop and watch on the street, in a theater, on TV, or would find interesting to read about in a newspaper. Each person has her own sense of this, but there is still serious overlap.

I think of a writer as having good Interestingness Detection Equipment. Good writers develop it, and it's unique, not generic or formulaic. Philip Roth is interested in different things than Billy Wilder.

Then the only formula is this. A story should be interesting. It should be continuously interesting--without a sag. And it should be increasingly interesting--more and more all the time.

Yes, there are separate questions about feature film form (three-act structure, resolution, etc.)

If you develop your Interestingness Detection Equipment, then the only other skill you need is the ability to modify an existing story--to be more rather than less interesting. Than you have access to the controls: you can modulate Interestingness up and down as you please--which means even the "more and more" formula need not be followed.

Basically, formulae and prescriptions are to me not the most interesting or powerful way of conceiving the individual patterns of human behavior. If you look at any sophisticated discipline, from sociology to genetics, they search for basic mechanisms which produce profoundly complex patterns: they don't search for simple patterns under which complex mechanisms exist.

If you want to write something formulaic--use a formala, then try to hide it. If you want to write something interesting, find what interestingness is for you, and it will likely have some interest for others.

The writer does not stand outside humanity trying to reduce humanity to basic configurations. A writer is a sample of humanity, an instance of it. And she can therefore trust that her own experiences, when properly seen and framed, can stand in some representative relationship to other human beings, and possibly even to humanity as a whole.

To completely immerse oneself in rules and formulae is at some level to treat oneself as a machine and to forget one's humanity--which is the most interesting thing about each of us.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Bringing Characters to Life: What That Can Mean

We know that good dramatic writing has something to do with life.

One ("Method") definition of acting as: living truthfully within the given circumstances of the text. Put simply, the actor "lives" the part. The writing must convey a sense that the characters are living human beings. If there's no signs the characters are alive, the actors will have a hard time bringing them to life.

But what does "living" mean here?

  • "Live" how?
  • Where is the "life" in the part?
  • How does it get there?

Briefly: the writer puts it there, and the actors and director find it and use it.

So how does one do this?

What Is "Life"?

When I refer to "life" I mean something at once simple and complex, obvious and subtle.

Being alive is a corporeal, bodily state, as well as the feeling of moving from one state to another. It's a kind of registration in and alteration of consciousness by the impact of physiological states--and vice-versa.

Hence things like:

  • waking up and falling asleep,
  • getting excited, growing bored,
  • being in suspense, anxious,
  • being or growing more or less calm,
  • having the hair on the back of your neck stand up,
  • running for your life,
  • meeting an old friend,
  • meeting an old enemy,
  • falling in love,
  • getting drunk or
  • sobering up,
  • being very hungry or
  • very full--
  • and the like.

This is not a rigorous philosophical definition: it's a rough-and-ready bin to use for practical purposes.

As a writer, you are obligated to give the characters a sense of life. If you're just arranging incidents or using words and actions to convey plot information, you're not really dealing with drama: you're creating puppets to mouth your story.

Little bits of life in a drama are like breadcrumbs for the actors to follow to find your character in the forest of words on the page.

  • Think how often writers have their characters stay up late at night, get drunk, fall in love and the like.

These bits of life make the character humanly-identifiable--hence actable. If you don't put some bits of life in your work, the actor has little to glom onto.

It's not hard to see the life of drama--when experts are at work. The experts are: the writer, director and actor. We can look at a couple of nice examples:

  • a scene in one of George Cukor's films (Travels with My Aunt), and
  • a short scene in All About Eve.

Why These Scenes?

Cukor. Director George Cukor was very expert. His movies include beloved classics, and he had a special knack for eliciting fine performances. Performers under Cukor's direction were nominated for Oscars more than 20 times.

The critical vocabulary for talking about acting is so impoverished that most can't say why Cukor is so good at this or in what his goodness consists. Looking at the issue of "life" in the dramatic text, we can.

One of Cukor's arsenal of tricks was the long take: letting the camera run for a minute or several to really showcase the actors' work.

  • In one sense, the long take shows the actor working in real time. Hence long takes really are bits of living, life laid out across a duration.
  • But in another sense, the long take shows the director's ability to control the actors--even when not using the way a shot's edges 'crop' a tiny moment, pull it out of the flow of life to blend it back into a flow of shots.
    • (The long take is the flipside of the 'shot': not the shot as bounded by edges but the shot as full of something--full of time and life.)

Mankiewicz. With fourteen Oscars nominations and six wins, including Best Picture, All About Eve is well-written, -directed--it got Oscars for those--and well-acted: it had five acting nominations and one win (for George Saunders in a supporting role).

  • Bette Davis was nominated for ten Oscars and won three. She knows her way around a soundstage. (The year of All About Eve, Davis lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.)
In each scene, we can ask:
  • What is the life of the scene? What are its moments? Its changes? Its arcs and curves? (For life has an aesthetic shape as well.)
  • Where are the markers of this life in the text--the dialogue? Where can we see that the actors and director together have interpreted the text to find signs of life they can develop?
  • Finally, what is the story of the scene, the information--as opposed to the life? We need to see this to see what a weaker writer would have put in a scene unsupported by human life.

Tired, Stoned Divulging.

It's late at night. A man and a young woman (a stranger) are drinking champagne in the man's sleeping car. They will smoke some cigarettes, reveal personal details about themselves, and eventually get into bed together (mostly clothed).

Already, you can sense the "life" the actors need to perform: it being late, getting drunk, getting high, the woman getting upset, the man comforting her, the two preparing to sleep--or something.

All this could be acted out with whatever dialogue. It's the life of the scene--or part of it. But the writers added another fun element, and the actors and the director have a helluva good time with it.

(The writers were Hugh Wheeler, who also wrote the books for a couple of Sondheim musicals, and Jay Presson Allen, who wrote Cabaret and Marnie, among other things: these folks know what they are doing. And Cukor worked on the script's development.)

Namely, the young woman brings out some cigarettes. The man thinks they're "American," but the woman says "I got these in Paris." When she takes a drag, it's a tell-tale deep drag. The man asks: "Are these herbal?" And the woman replies: "I don't think so."

Clearly, the two are smoking weed, but the man doesn't know it.

So the actor does some nice things to show that smoking this cigarette is not familiar.

  • He coughs.
  • The cigarette doesn't seem to taste right.
  • At one moment he seems dizzy from the cigarette.
Then the other actor joins in the fun.
  • The pair break out into giggling, even with no clear reason.
  • The dialogue is a bit repetitive, and so they act the hide-and-seek of topics as a function of the two being stoned.

In short, there are cues in the dialogue about the time of day, getting drunk and high, exposing one's private thoughts and feelings, and the director and actors invent details--the funny taste, the slight headache, the giggling--which create the physical life of the characters, and this helps to ground the scene, helps us to understand it humanly.

As information, the scene is slight. But the point is the contrast between the two lifestyles and moral codes.

  • The man's an Anglican. The woman is a kind of daffy rich hippie chick.
  • He's British, and She's American.
  • He's staid, and she's bohemian.

None of this is central to the plot. But the man's transformation is central. And so the man's coming to know a different world and getting stoned without knowing it: these are life experiences that slowly but surely add up to changing the protagonist.

All About Eve

This scene is about 35 minutes into a 2:20 movie. (Don't ask me which 'act' that is.)

The scene consists of actress-diva Margo Channing is awaken at 3 a.m. by a phone call.

At one level, the scene is largely about information: we learn something new, and so does Margo. But Mankiewicz is too good a writer not to have the information land with psychological impact. And Davis is too good an actress to do a scene which is not humanly interesting.

Zoom to 6 min & 4 seconds: Youtube's software won't do this for me.

The operator claims to be placing a call at her behest for midnight California time. Margo knows nothing about this. The other party turns out to be her boyfriend Bill (who's in Hollywood shooting a movie). During the call, Margo discovers:

  • That it's Bill's birthday,
  • that her assistant Eve scheduled the call (and neglected to mention same),
  • that Eve is also planning a welcome home/birthday party for Bill upon his return.
A lot of the work is done through dialogue.
  • Dialogue marks one of Margo's realizations: "Bill, it's your birthday."
  • Dialogue also tells us something about the way Margo says it, because Bill (a director) criticizes her performance.
  • And the dialogue also tells us Margo is not thinking straight: when Bill says "I love you," she replies "I'll check with Eve"--repeating an earlier line about party guests and showing the audience how intertwined the three characters have become, and how unconscious Margo is, in several ways.

The scene ends with Margo lighting a cigarette, and in the next scene she's still in bed--as if perhaps knocked for a loop and still recovering.

So what is the 'life'? Where is it marked in the text? How is it acted?

Very simply, the life of the scene is a woman waking up. She is waking up at two levels.

  • She is woken up, catches on, becomes aware of Eve's treachury, the way Eve's 'mistakes' end up benefitting Eve.
  • And by a clever strategem, the writer Mankiewicz chooses the life of a woman physically waking up.

The writer was the director, and he either told Bette Davis, or she figured out herself: you go from sleeping to wide awake, because the woman learns something unpleasant.

So what Davis acts is: first struggling to stay awake, wanting to sleep. The writer, director and actor here are all on the same page. They mark a clear contrast from being asleep, through struggling to stay awake, to not being able to fall asleep.


You may not choose to weave "life" into your scenes. But it is at least a guarantee you have more than one level in your script--on top of the intricate information you have woven in to reveal character through subtext and actions. And you will also befriend your actor if you can give her some life to embody--life that carries the meaning of the story, too, not just its outer husk.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Don't Start on Page One: Work in Layers.

I dare say: the primary problem of creative writing is workflow. Where do you start?

I had two conversations about screenwriting recently, and taken together with a third observation, these can show something important about how to develop your work.

(The third thing is taken from some old Julia Child TV shows I've been watching. And those make me think that good writing is a bit like French cooking. But more of that later.)

First, I talked to an aspiring screenwriter whose approach to screenwriting was basically: "Start on page one--and then just kind of keep going."

This still blows my mind.

To me, this is like:

  • hanging the doorknobs or painting the trim before you pour the foundation, or
  • putting the icing in the pan and pouring the cake batter on top and hoping you'll get a layer cake.

A more sophisticated counter-argument would be: your brain can only do so many things at once.

  • There's something called "working memory."
  • This is like the cutting board for your mind.
  • It's the place in your brain where you bring together the stuff you need work over.

Can you do these all at the same time?

  • Juggle axes,
  • tap dance, and
  • recite the Pledge of Allegiance backwards?

Yeah, it's unlikely. Unless you can already do all three separately quite well. And then combining the three would only take a bit of practice.

But most people who start to write scripts cannot already do any of the separate skills too well. So starting from page one and typing is like trying to learn to juggle and tap dance at the same time.

The simple idea is: any complex made thing likely needs to be planned and built in at least a few steps.

Yes, I can make a paper airpline in a few steps. But you must assume that even the simplest movie script has a few things going on, and to get those events to spill out in an engaging way, some planning is desirable.

But what kinds of planning? In what kinds of steps?

The second conversation I had about screenwriting recently was about pitching--recounting your script or idea orally in order to sell it or get it read. Pitches come in a variety of sizes.

  • A thirty-second pitch--the "elevator" version.
  • A one-minute pitch. (This is for when the person isn't actually running away from you.)
  • A ten-minute pitch.
  • The whole movie in 30 minutes.

One person in the conversation looked at pitching as a separate skill and process--which in a way it is.

But I would urge that you should likely think of your emerging film script in pretty much this way. And movies that get made work like this and for a long time were even made like this. Screenwriting has this very organized side--but then it's also very organic--the same way we must learn any complex skill.

For any screenplay--the one you're writing, one you're reading, or one which was produced and which you're watching--you should be able to answer some simple questions.

  1. What's the premise? This is the basic idea, the hypothesis, which captures the problematic situation someone in the movie faces. A beach town is menaced by a killer shark and must destroy it. Or: A famous millionaire dies and reporters must discover the meaning of his cryptic last words. That type of thing: something that makes you curious to see the movie.
  2. What are the big chunks and turning points? This is three or four major actions which define the film's big twists and turns. The town can't get their act together. But a fractious team finally emerges, and they overcome their differences enough to work together. They ultimately succeed, but at a great price. The details inside these three or four chunks could change. But the gist should stay the same.
  3. What are the beats? These are the dozen or so smaller actions. The reporter tries to interview the rich man's second wife, but she's drunk and sends him away. Each beat captures between a few and ten minutes of the movie.
  4. How does each scene keep you in suspense and give you intriguing things to watch? This gets down to the microscopics of: Why does the character enter the room? What happens that's surprising? What new information comes out? How does your perspective change during the scene?

As you can see, these correspond to the various size pitches. And these layers of work also translate out into why an audience is interested or wants to share their enthusiasm with others.

Before you even see a movie, you likely know something about it.

  • The film needs to be promoted with a brief 'teaser' summary.
  • The story is compressed into taglines, posters, advertisements, etc.
  • Friends tell each other what the film is about in a sentence or two.

Longer things like trailers capture the major story points--as well as commercial attractions like stars and locations, story values like music or adventure. And then when viewers tell friends, they:

  • recap the story,
  • tell about interesting scenes,
  • describe certain moments where you must watch the actor closely to see what the character is feeling or hiding,
  • etc.

In short, these are all the levels at which the script must be interesting. If a script is not interesting at all these levels, it is likely not worth making--and almost impossible to promote or for viewers to recommend to friends or acquaintances.

The Julia Child/French cooking analogy is this: every ingredient in French cooking is itself layered with flavor, so the final dish has layer on layer of flavor.

  • You brown and salt the meat before stewing it.
  • The broth you add has a separate palette of flavors.
  • Even the fruit you use to decorate a tart might itself be soaked in liqueur or fruit juice.

Layers and layers of flavor characterize French cooking--and there's something delightfully similar when the story, scenes and dialogue are all richly layered.

Indeed, if you think about common criticisms, they often point to something missing at one of these levels. E.g.,

  • "Interesting premise but uninteresting scenes."
  • "Intriguing scenes, but not controlling idea or action to hold it together."
  • "The stakes aren't high enough--overall and in the individual scenes."

Back in the old studio system different people actually did different kinds of writing work on projects. So there was a kind of guarantee that each level of work would get expert attention and care.

  • Some people found interesting stories: forthcoming novels, published short stories, non-fiction articles in ladies' magazines that suggested interesting situations.
  • The same people summarized these--to see if they should be purchased.
  • Still other people decided which part was most interesting, essential--especially as it pertained to commercial potential (the stars under contract, the house genres, etc.).
  • Someone did a prose treatmen and analysis: this was five to ten pages, depending on the length of the original. It was a sort of short, novelistic summary, together with a discussion of why the material might be appealing.
  • Someone did a "scenarization." This broke the treatment down into segments that could be seen and acted out: scenes, montages, etc. This was like our outline of today.
  • Finally, still other specialists wrote the dialogue based on the scenarization.
Many people might work on the dialogue.
  • Women might work on the scenes that focused on women.
  • Humor specialists punched up that.
  • If someone had written a touching family comedy, she was brought in for the family scenes.
  • If someone had a knack for historical films and dialogue, he was brought in for that.

Now the nasty part is: imagine having to do all this yourself. It's a bit unfair. But that's the contemporary world of freelancers. Everyone has to do everything herself--until you're actually hired or have actually sold something.

So how, practically, can you do this yourself?

  1. Find or develop an interesting premise. The benchmark here is how much intereest it excites. It must excite interest in the writer, or there's no hope of getting started, let alone interesting an audience.
  2. Develop an interesting story outline from the premise. This means things like: one action flows from the prior one, and also that the overall situation becomes increasingly complicated--so the audience does not get up & leave.
  3. Parcel out the story into actable chunks: scenes, montages, sequences, etc. This is simply a requirement of telling a story on film. But it involves a lot of compression--leaving a lot out, picking exemplary moments.
  4. Visualize where and how those chunks unfold. My own technique is first to write the scenes without dialogue--purely visually, as a 'silent movie.' If a purely visual acting-out of the story does not convey what's happening, it's likely dialogue is not going to improve things.
  5. Add non-redundant dialogue. This means: your dialogue is not repeating what is already clear. And if you are able to write interesting dialogue where the characters are hiding their true feelings--because we see what's underneath elsewhere or can infer it--your scenes will be that much more interesting.

Hence at every layer, you have many opportunities to create interest--which is really the name of the game. (And also, if you don't work in this way, you will likely end up with lots of disconnected bits, rather than everything flowing from a few core ideas.)

This sketch does not give a full picture of these levels of work. And some kinds of work take place throughout. Only a few brief points can be added here.

  1. The Craft of Story Development. You're doing this constantly. And it has to do with connecting the pieces of the story, making this influence and interfere with that, beginning that later action earlier, etc. It's largely a question of keeping a number of plates spinning--like in the old vaudeville act--but it's also a question of unity, of preparing and even misleading the audience.
  2. Painting from Life. If you are from another planet, you are unlikely to have good material to use. Good movies are shot-through with interesting and precise observations of
    • the way people talk in the theater world,
    • the kinds of security tools at a big casino,
    • crime detection techniques,
    • what people wear and eat and drink in certain times and places,
    • and things like this.
    • If you don't have this degree of detail, you don't have a story--you have an abstraction.
  3. Hiding the Work: Creation vs. Presentation. Just because you thought of it in this order, doesn't mean you should tell it that way. As the writer you invented the story, but the audience might discover it in quite a different way than you did, or than the characters do. So there's a whole pleasant game-like way of revealing things to an audience slowly, parterning with them, getting them involved in figuring out the story.
  4. Interestingness Is Textural. Just the texture can be interesting. I'm thinking here largely of the way multiple stories are woven together. Several things happen at once--think of those spinning plates, each ready to fall at a different moment--and so the very way you bring things in and then take them away makes for a nice hide-and-seek with the audience.

These kinds of work don't seem to me isolated to one level. You must do them all the time, everywhere you go.

The writer must ask herself: What would be interesting here? How can I make this interesting?

And if you don't like posing and answering that question constantly, you probably don't have the stomach to do much writing.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Friday, April 6, 2012

What, How and Why? The Three Levels of Screenwriting (or Lots of Other Things, Too, Probably)

In teaching and learning screenwriting, we are often faced with the puzzle or how to organize what we’re teaching.
  • Where do you start? 
  • In what order do you present the elements of the process? 
  • Where are you heading? 
  • How do you diagnose the kinds of things that can go wrong--so you can help writers move forward?
  • What are basic errors, rookie mistakes, and what are deeper problems?
The same questions apply to teaching most art forms--and probably many other disciplines, too.

In my experience, creative activities have three clear dimensions. These answer the questions: what, how and why.
  • What are you doing?
  • How do you do it?
  • Why are you doing it?
The answers to these questions correspond to three dimensions of the artistic process:
  • the discipline or medium,
  • craft, and
  • art.
Each dimension has a definition, a quantity and criteria.
  • The discipline defines the identity and borderlines of the medium. What is and is not a screenplay? The answers are limited: basically, the answer is either “yes” or “no.” You are either writing a screenplay, or you are making a cleverly disguised memory or fantasy or daydream or shopping list--which happens to be typed in screenplay format. The criteria in any discipline is: competence. You are either competent or you are not.
  • The craft concerns itself with the techniques of the medium. These are plural: there is more than one technique. But the number is limited: there are not an infinite number of techniques. The criteria here is how well the techniques are used. In a sense, the criterion is always efficiency: you either use the techniques of the medium efficiently or wastefully to accomplish a specific purpose.
  • The purpose, ends or goal of the activity is what makes it an art (or not). Why write? Why write this way rather than that, using dialogue rather than images, or vice-versa? How do you make choices--not only about technique but about what to do, what goals to shoot for? In screenwriting, the art often concerns the relationship to the audience: should the script comfort, scare, compel, please or disturb the audience--or some combination. The ends of art are plural but not limited in number. If the ends of art are not infinite, they are nearly so. And the criterion is excellence, sometimes called beauty.
Much the same could be said for: playing a musical instrument. 
  • The discipline demands the ability to render clearly a musical message--a melody, say. Banging the piano keys is not playing the piano: there is no competence involved. And the same message cannot be created again--except by chance. Some might be able to improvise a melody. This is still using the medium as a form of speech to form a coherent message. 
  • The technique involves being able to play loud or soft, fast or slow, notes of different lengths, staccato or legato or rubato, in different combinations. For the piano, one must be able to combine melody and harmony, preferably in either hand. Complete fluency involves being able to render complex musical messages with accuracy.
  • The art of playing an instrument centers on the purpose. Is the goal to amuse the listener? To charm? To frighten? To keep her awake, put her to sleep? Is it to transmit an idea or a feeling? When you are considering such questions, you are in the domain of art. You may still need to solve problems of technique. But it is unlikely you will ever get to art if you are not competent.
Now consider again writing a screenplay, but in more detail this time.
  • In screenwriting, the medium is what allows you to depict a human action, someone (specific) doing something (specific): a man falling in love, a woman looking for a job, a child winning a spelling bee. If an audience cannot comprehend what is taking place--what person is doing what action when where and why--then the writer is not competent. And the more specific, the more competent. Take a middle-aged man with a headcold and an allergy to wheat falling in love with a shy 30-something librarian: you may not be interested in it, but if you are not able to write it, you are unlikely to be able to write anything in much detail.
    • A more sophisticated description of competence is: the ability to communicate human actions using visual images and dialogue. To be effective and somewhat realistic, the dialogue needs to avoid exposition and redundancy. The characters cannot simply get together and discuss what’s happening: the audience must see it, infer it, or some combination. And ideally the characters will not say things to each other that they already know--simply so the audience can overhear it and be clued in.
  • The craft of screenwriting centers on the lovely way that the story unfolds, all the parts connected, yet slowly emerging over time, each part leading towards the next yet also being open enough that the audience might remain curious.
    • Probably the central element of craft is simply interestingness, involvement, immersion. The audience must not be bored, and they cannot leave the cinema before the movie ends. The writer is therefore at a very basic level simply keeping the audience in their seats.
    • Techniques for keeping the audience interested range from giving them risky and dangerous things to watch, making the outcome unpredictable enough to make them want to find it out, delaying resolution, adding complexity so the execution becomes unpredictable, etc. The list is long, but not infinite.
    • Writers often speak of set-up and pay-off, but I would point to the ability to weave different actions together, to combine the preparation for something to come with the consequences of what’s just happened. If a writer can’t combine actions--say, to make a bank robber fall in love in the middle of planning a heist--then the writer has little skill.
    • The basic elements of the medium such as cross-cutting must be something the writer can use to increase interest and even enrich the meaning of the experience. If a writer cannot intercut two stories, he will really have a difficult time getting very far into a script.
    • There are other elements of technique, but these areas are probably key.
  • The art of screenwriting is something different. You are encountering screenwriting as an art when a specific vision of human life takes shape on the page. What, at bottom, is life about? Is it a grim and unrelenting tragedy from which no one is spared? A comedy in which we all are made fools? What should a movie do to its audience? Move, startle, charm, impress, shock? When a screenplay has no vision of human existence and no definite pattern or aim in relating to the audience, it lacks art: it has no purpose, no sense of why movies exist--aside from the sheer level of distracting us with a charming puzzle.
If a writer can achieve the first two levels, the results should be quite interesting. Craft assures a well-made thing, and a well-made thing is interesting and involving to look at, get involved with, and interact with. 

Look closely at any finely crafted object--something with a few moving parts. A nice old cigarette lighter, with its clever way of sliding apart and holding liquid, its wick to keep the liquid from seeping out, the flint and the clever way the flint is struck by a simple action of the finger: this is a lovely kind of thing. And a curious person can find quite a bit of fascination in such objects. 

Many puzzles and toys exert fascination in pretty much this way. And it is no mean feat, and quite an honorable thing, to be able to craft something that is interesting and that holds and repays attention.

But craft is not art. It is hard to imagine art without craft--though putting your name on a urinal may well count. Some art is just a brilliant recombination, with no specific technique of its own, only those techniques which are needed. Some kinds of experimental theater or film strike us this way. And we can be struck by and admire this kind of art. Though most art requires some craft, art is still not reducible to craft. Art is clearly a different level--as a melody is not just notes.

Quite possibly, one could say the same thing of prose writing or the production of rigorous knowledge, whether scientific or humanistic.
  • A prose writer must convey an idea in sentences that are long or short, simple or complex, and an artist has thought carefully about what kind of impact to have on a reader, and why to bother using prose at all. 
  • A scientist or scholar can not only argue a claim that’s meaningful within a discipline--chemistry or art history--and prove or support that claim, but she has also thought carefully about which claims are more significant, more probative, more weighty, more impactful. Perhaps the Mona Lisa was really painted by someone else--but what are the implications and consequences?
To become competent in screenwriting, one only needs to master the basic tools by depicting any human action whatever: a bad day at work, going on a date that ends surprisingly, running errands that go wrong, etc. It is a good idea to focus on things that go wrong, as this helps avoid the tendency to lapse into happy daydreams. And as we all know, life can go wrong in so many ways, and there is a sort of mirth that comes from watching just how quickly  the simplest plan can go awry.

To learn the craft, it helps to start simply. It is not hard to take a simple action and make it more interesting, to lead the audience in one direction and then provide a surprise. It’s a little trickier to write dialogue where the audience can infer that something is going on beneath the surface. But it can be done--in part by studying very good scripts and plays which do this very well. 

One can become competent at screenwriting fairly quickly. But the craft can take months and years to get very good at. It is not necessary to involve oneself in artistic questions: the questions of craft and technique can be rich enough to keep a student busy for some time. But eventually, if a writer wants to grow, she must address the largest question: why write at all? The relevant parallel question is: why live at all? And this is why the most engaging art tends to give some large vision of what human existence is like: because the probing question of “why?” resounds outside of the medium and cuts us to the quick--if we really bother to care about it.

For the art of screenwriting, one needs to turn to the very best exemplars of the medium. I would point to: Wilder, Chaplin, Sturges, Mankiewicz; the scripts chosen by and written for Resnais, Hitchcock--to name only a few personal favorites which are hardly unknown.

It is not so hard to do a thing, once you know what you are doing. And the order in which you proceed makes doing a hard thing a bit easier. 

--Edward R. O'Neill

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Five Ways of Working

In the previous blog post, I waxed philosophical about the need to have methods, approaches or "ways of working" to move forward on a large project.

A large project is basically: anything that cannot be finished in a single sitting of between 20 minutes and four hours. (It's hard to get much done in less time, and it's hard to sit consecutively for much longer.)

And I became much more aware of these ways and sensible about using them when I shifted from argumentative writing to creative writing (in my case, screenwriting). It may not be that way for everyone, but for me the shift from argumentative writing to creative writing produced a new perspective, a different kind of awareness--probably like trying to do an accustomed task with the hand you're unaccustomed to using.

So here are five possible ways. There must be many others, but these are some.

Five Ways of Working.

1. Make a small whole. Elaborate the parts over time. 

This is how I teach screenwriting as story development. The "small whole" is an outline, step-outline or 'beat sheet.' It's normal English-language sentences describe actions which, when imagined or acted out, interest and impress the reader. 

You can start small:  "1. Jack and Jill go up a hill to fetch a pail of water. 2. It ends badly."  And then you can elaborate. Why do they go? Why do they need water? What exactly goes wrong?

What you are doing is conforming each part to the whole--and vice-versa. This little bit must lead effectively from here to there, but it must also stand as some kind of emblem of the whole--clear or cloudy, direct or indirect, right-side up or upside-down.

If, at every point, you keep a small, complete version of  your story, you will be able to move it forward incrementally. It may be slow, but you always have something to show for your work, and that is a great boost to morale. 

2. Make a set of specifications that tells what kind of bits you need and what size they should be. Then make the pieces to size.

This is something I'm trying now. I have a project where I know some of the pieces. And based on that, I'm creating a design for the kinds of pieces and how they fit together. Sometimes "how the pieces fit together" is the hardest part. So I'm solving that first.

Then I am working by putting the material I already have in the little boxes I have made. Where there is no material, I am inventing the material--which is easier because it has an exact space to fill. 

This is the opposite of "Start writing and stop when you are done"--which is basically a recipe for disaster, for no design, for over-writing, for getting stuck. With "work-to-size," you know how big each piece is supposed to be, and you then tailor the material to fit. But you most know the Whole Design and the Kinds of Pieces. 

3. Draw a big line and then fill in the segments. Work in chunks--from point A to B, B to C, etc.

This is the way I wrote my first feature script and started my second. I developed an outline bit by bit. Then when I could develop it no further in that format, I translated what I had into script format. This involved a good deal of puzzle-solving.

Screenwriting has this interesting feature: your design may be an outline, but your final product must be a script. So there is always the question of developing an idea in one format and then translating it to another (if you work that way).

Basically, what this means is: not all problems can be solved in all formats or on all platforms. I'm sure if you're sewing a garment, if you haven't sewn on a zipper before, that's a special challenge. So you make the whole and then start working on finishing the parts. 

In this case, I had the whole story, but never having written a feature before, the piecing together of the segments was a challenge--and it had to be handled separately. (Basically, your brain can only do so much processing at once, and so it's a question of managing the load so that you aren't crunching so many different equations at the same time that you get them all balled up.)

This works, but it's challenging.  Indeed, I have the first 25 pages of one script which needs the next 30 to be "worked out." It's such a daunting process that it discourages, and so that script has stayed at page 25 for several months--and may stay there longer, as I explore other working methods.

4. Create interesting pieces. Weave them together around the most critical points to create a larger whole. Connect the dots with relevant material--connectives, contrast, etc.

I generally tell students to avoid this. You have an interesting scene where a woman tears up her prize rose bushes. And then you have another interesting scene where a man confesses to his wife he's been cheating during a dinner party. But you don't have the rest.

So you write the bits that you have, and then you try to expand each a little bit, and to weave the parts together.

I am developing more sympathy to this method, as I start to work with some materials which are multi-character and which involve orchestrating multiple stories in parallel, with intersections and contrasts. It can be done--if the material fits the method--although I am expecting a certain amount of false starts. 

5. Create an unmapped whole one large chunk at a time.

This is basically the hardest. This is likely how most dissertations are written. You have a description of the project--which is largely bits of the first two chapters.

Then you are advised "just to write it" one chapter at a time. Never having written anything that large before, not knowing what such a thing feels like or how it fits together.

It's a wonder anyone finishes any such thing or that any of them are publishable quality. My dissertation was certainly a trainwreck of weak transitions and poor organization--putting stuff in separate chapters that probably could have been better presented at one blow. But I did not have the experience to know that.


If college students had courses where they purposefully applied different working methods to different projects, they might actually graduate with a sense of: this is what works best for me, when it comes to getting something biggish done.

Indeed, I'm kind of wondering if many Life Projects couldn't be better attacked using a variety of such methods.

But of course: you can't know until you find out.

--Edward R. O'Neill

How Not To Go Crazy

Writing, I mean.

How NOT to go crazy while writing.

I mean: writing something longer. Like: longer than a few sentences.

As soon as you need to get past about a page, that's when the real woes begin. And that's when it feels like you might lose your mind. 

My father used to say--with good reason, I now believe--that anything important can be expressed in a clear one-page letter. 

That's certainly good advice for job-seekers. Now I wonder if my father's wisdom wasn't precisely: avoiding writing anything much longer than a single page.

But if you must write something longer than a single page--a screenplay, an article, a dissertation--it actually helps to have some kind of method. 

I don't mean "method" in any heavy-duty, methodical sense. I don't mean "method" like: recipe or formula.  

A better word might be "process," as when writers and artists talk about their "process." It sounds nebulous, but it's a real thing. Watch a good artist work. There's something definite happening there, even if you can't reduce it to a simple series of steps.

Another phrase might simply be: ways of working. Or: approaches.

How do you approach a large and complex task? 
What ways of going forward are there?

It's kind of unbelievable, but very little is written about how to write something longer than a page--I mean how to go about it, where to start, what steps to take.

I started writing screenplays last year" I started with a 15-page short and graduated quickly to a 140-page (overlong) feature. And that was a turning point for me. I have been more concerned with process and craft than I was when I focused mostly on writing prose arguments. (I wish I had written essays, which need no argument or thesis; but arguments are the meat-and-potatoes of scholars, so write arguments I did.)

If you are an academic who writes, your writing is probably largely leftover habits from writing term papers. I bet they didn't serve you terribly well. You probably got papers written and earned decent grades. But the same approach may not serve you well on a dissertation or article.

As I groped my way towards screenwriting, I sensed quickly that: when a creative writer needs to do something, she needs to teach herself how to do that thing. If you come to a part where you need to describe a character, you figure out how to do it best, given what your goals and talents are.

More likely, you need to invent a character. But it's the same issue: when you run into problems, you must invent techniques to solve them. Creative writing is a kind of sui generis problem-solving: whenever inspiration fails, you must develop a method to solve the problem at hand. 

This is more or less what Stanislavski said about his famous "Method": he called it 'notes for moments of difficulty.' In short: how to get yourself out of a bind when you find that inspiration does not 'naturally' supply you. 

But how do you move forward? That is the crucial question. And it seems impossible to answer. But once you have a few gestalts or general images for different ways of working, it's really not so mysterious.

But that's what I'll blog about next time.

--Edward R. O'Neill

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Two Kinds of Questions

Watching a movie, the viewer undoubtedly considers many questions. 

  • How much longer will this thing last?
  • Should I get my free popcorn refill?
  • Did that actress have work done?
  • How much money was wasted on this mess?

Not all of these are deeply related to the screenplay of the film. Some of them we can't worry about.  Indeed, only the first two have something to do with the screenwriter. 

  • If the audience is waiting for the movie to end, you haven't done a good job of keeping them interested.
  • If they are waiting for an uneventful spot, you at least managed to convince them to sit tight through one bucket of popcorn.

Other questions the writer should care about deeply. Take Sunset Boulevard. Two things the viewer might wonder are:

  • Will Joe and Norma sell their screenplay?
  • Is Joe a good person?

These are two quite different kinds of questions. The first is about plot and has a definite answer. The answer will likely be revealed--with time. If not, the audience will be pretty confused.

The second question is about character--and there is more than one answer. How good or bad a person Joe is will likely be revealed as well, but what the audience thinks about it is quite separate.

We could label these questions:

plot vs. character
facts vs. values
closed vs. open.

And there are two kinds of movies. One kind of movie never seriously poses the second kind of question. The other makes this kind of question central.

The first kind of movie assume there is a clear moral code that can be relied on to manipulate audience responses. This moral code is made up of beliefs like:

  • People who kick dogs are bad.
  • People who cheat on their wives are bad.
  • Murder is never right.
  • Shooting an unarmed man is a terrible thing to do.
  • People are either good or bad.

Wilder is the kind of screenwriter who didn't rely on beliefs like this. He doesn't so much manipulate the audience to have a definite moral response: Wilder pushes the audience to think for themselves.

  • Joe is taking advantage of a crazy older lady.
  • Joe is basically sleeping a woman for money.
  • Joe knows Norma will never get what she wants.
  • Joe is two-timing Norma.
  • Joe is romancing someone else's best gal.

In many ways, Joe is not a nice person. But Joe is the protagonist. We have some interest in whether or not Joe will succeed on his many half-thought-out projects. 

But Joe is charming. Joe is witty. Joe sees humor even in sad situations. Joe is handsome. Joe is played by William Holden--and so Joe carries with him all of Holden's rather considerable charm.

Wilder presents Joe as having an urgent career problem, gives Joe a clever if not-very-moral solution, and then continues to add unsavory behavior after unsavory behavior. Wilder tests the audience. It's as if he's continually asking: "Now do you like him? What about now? Okay, how about now?"

It thus seems like a smart thing as a writer to remember that not all your moral questions about the characters need be answered simply and clearly. Some can be thrown in the laps of the audience, where, if you are both skillful and lucky, they will keep the audience from getting that extra bucket of popcorn.

--Edward R. O'Neill